The Stars Below

By Ralf Rothmann

Translation Alexandra Roesch

When he returned to the mortuary, a new bed was already waiting outside the door, one with side rails from the children’s ward. Beneath the sheet lay a blonde girl aged around seven, heart surgery it seemed; the upper body was still stained brown from the disinfectant. Darker shadows under the eyes than the adult dead, even her eyelids shimmered greyish blue but that was common in children. The pallor of her face, however, seemed to extend mysteriously beyond the facial contours and Oswald, who was looking at it calmly and intensely, saw no trace of a struggle or final agony. Two vertical creases, barely visible above the bridge of her nose bestowed an expression of incomprehension or disapproval, yet this was softened by her mouth’s vague smile. The girl’s chest wound had been stapled together with metal clips similar to those used in offices and when he picked her up, her long hair fell over his lower arm with a cool touch.
Now, for a moment, he closed his eyes. Somewhere a bell sounded, a melodiously tone, and a shadow flew across the tiles. “What’s the matter with her?” asked Vincent, who suddenly appeared in the open courtyard door. A fox was printed on his white t-shirt and behind him in the car park lay a sturdy bike, the wheels still turning. “Has she fainted?”
Oswald shook his head. So that he would see as little as possible of the dead girl, Oswald turned his back on the boy and said quietly over his shoulder: “Oh, there you are! I’ve been waiting for you…no, she’s sleeping, needs to rest. Go out onto the terrace will you? I’ll just quickly put her to bed.”
But Vincent stayed put, both hands in the pockets of his cargo pants. He leaned forward and looked down the corridor, wrinkling his nose. “It smells strange,” he whispered. “Like when our cat yawns. It has really bad breath, at least after tinned food. Is it true there are dead bodies lying around here everywhere?”
“Rubbish!” replied Oswald and pushed down the handle of the door to the refrigerated storage with his elbow, while still keeping it closed. “Who told you that? It’s a normal ward. This girl here, for example, is being picked up tomorrow. She’s cured. And dead people can’t be discharged, can they? Off you go and I’ll see you in the garden. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Vincent opened his mouth, but said nothing. With his eyes on the girl’s toes, on the labelled tag, he slowly walked to his bike, its front wheel was still spinning. The spokes gleamed like something fluid in the evening sun and Oswald waited until he had left the car park.
Only then did he pull the door open just a crack and squeeze his way into the room with the girl, putting her body down on a tray. You could see the whites of her eyes between the lids and after he had carefully pressed them closed, he disinfected his hands and went out onto the terrace.
Vincent sat on one of the plastic chairs with both arms hugging his bent knees and looked over the dusky meadow. Lights were on inside the villa and the men in blue overalls, almost all with V-shaped sweat marks on their backs, were just in the process of heaving an enormous concert grand wrapped in grey felt into the lorry.
“We’re leaving early,” the boy mumbled when Oswald sat down next to him. “Mother’s had a row with your opera. Breach of contract. Father always says when she gets going the diva in her comes out. Ten more tour days in Germany and then it’s boarding the 747. Qantas – with movies and everything. But I don’t want to leave.”
Oswald shooed away a wasp that was approaching Vincent’s colourful t-shirt. “Hey, be happy,” he said and dug around for his cigarettes. “Other kids would love to swan around the world as much as you. Australia! Isn’t that great?”
Vincent slowly shook his head. “No, it’s sad. We weren’t even here two months and in Milan it was only six. You just make new friends and then you have to leave again. That gives me real tummy aches you know, with a temperature and everything. And then mother says I shouldn’t be such a fusspot; travelling is good for my artistic development. But I don’t need any. I’d much rather stay in the house over there with our books.” Grinning, he looked up. “And with you my giant. They think your name is really funny and father likes you too. He says you have such long arms that you can scratch your knees standing up.” He smiled widely and lent forward. “Is that true? Can you really? Let me see, please?”
Swallows were swooping in the sky, their wing-beats were audible and Oswald flicked his lighter and remained silent. But the child, eyes wide, jumped up from his chair and clapped his hands. “Oh please, please! Show me!” The man shook his head once briefly. The lorries were full, the packers closed the doors and he looked into the violet-red sky above the trees, exhaled the smoke through his nose and murmured: “Leave it Vincent. I am not your performing monkey.”
The boy’s smile faded, his face paled and for a heartbeat or two he stood immobilized; only his fingers moved a little and his nostrils twitched. “But why… I just thought… I did not want to hurt your feelings Uncle Gabi! You’re my best friend,” he said and stepped closer to the seated man, nervously twiddling the buttons of Oswald’s white coat. “You are, aren’t you? I always talk rubbish, you can ask anyone. But I don’t mean any harm, cross my heart!”
He swallowed several times and his eyes grew moist. Oswald raised a hand, but did not dare touch the child. “Well yes, it’s not that bad. It’s all right Vincent. We’re made of sterner stuff,” he answered, rubbing the nape of his neck and looking towards the house. “Come and sit down. I’m your friend, obviously. Your blood brother if you want. But please sit down on the chair again, alright? Otherwise they might think… I mean…”
He dropped his cigarette, reached into his breast pocket and held up a piece of paper. “Look here, I brought you something. Our poem is finished!“
The boy however, tears dripping from his chin, did not look at it. He sighed shakily and wiped his eyes with the palms of his hands. Then he went around the chair, carefully stepped on the glowing butt and pocketed it. “Which poem?“
Oswald turned a dial next to the office door and an insect-encrusted lamp, veiled with spiders’ webs, flickered on. “I’ve called it ‘Mouse Blues’ for starters,“ he said. “You can change the title later.”
Arms folded in front of his chest, the child looked at him expectantly and he unfolded the piece of paper, sat up straight and read in a feigned deep voice:
“Where did you lose your tail Mouse?” Only to answer in a voice as high-pitched as he could muster: “I must have lost it at the dance house.” And once again deeply, with theatrically arched brows: “Mouse, what have you done with your claws? Oh, I lost them out-of-doors. And your ears, where are they? They also seem to have gone away. And your nose? In the grass by the garden hose. And your sight so bright? Gone, out like a light. Mouse, surely teeth you once had many? Well, now I ain’t got any. And who has your coat so grey? Age quickly took it away.”
The child stepped closer, wanted to say something, but Oswald raised a hand and closed mournfully: “You feel a paw, just like that, swallowed up and you become a cat!”
The boy stared for a moment, his mouth agape, his gaze dreamy; he seemed to be struggling to detach himself from the images in his head. In the house the windows were being closed, a furniture van rolled out of the driveway and he ignored his mother’s calls and moved his lips as if he were repeating the poem silently. Then he clapped his hands, raised both fists up high and Oswald handed him the piece of paper with a sigh of relief.
“Boy, that was really hard work!” He put out the light on the terrace and tapped out a new cigarette from the packet. “The rhymes are do-able, they’re easy. But it’s got to make sense and sound good, right? I always had one word too many or too few. Sometimes just a syllable. That was trickier than a crossword puzzle!”
The second van drove off. Vincent folded the piece of paper and put it in his pocket. “It is great!” he said and went over to his bike. “We are a really good team. I will show it to my parents, maybe they can have it printed. You will of course get half the fees and we’ll have to talk about author’s rights.” He polished the bicycle bell with a corner of his shirt. “But you know what? I didn’t quite understand the ending … the mouse is already dead; she got swiped by the paw, right? So why does it become a cat?
Oswald put the cigarette behind his ear and helped him lift the bike over the fence. “Well, you can do that in a poem… it just gets digested. I mean, when you eat a chop or some chicken then it transforms too. It gives you strength and lets you grow. It becomes Vincent.”
“Really? Cool,” he said and looked round; his father had let out a two-fingered whistle. “But we’re vegetarians. I’m not allowed to eat things like that.” Then he bent down, slipped through to the other side and quickly – so he would not bang his head on the fence pole – Oswald held a hand over his head.
The lights went out in the villa, the west-facing windows reflected the last traces of red evening sky and behind him he heard the sound that always occurred when another bed, rolling down the sloping corridor, banged against the steel door – a blunt ‘clonk’. Something flew above the treetops through the dusk and you could not tell whether it was still the swallows or already bats. The boy got on his bike. “So, take care. I’ve got to go to Australia.”
With his lower lip protruding, he raised a fist and Oswald tapped his own against it. “Okay, gangster, take care of yourself”, he said hoarsely. “The sun down there is a force to be reckoned with. That’s what I read somewhere anyhow. They have trousers with sun protection. And write me a love poem sometime.”
Laughing, the boy started pedalling. The reflectors in the wheel spikes glinted and the gears cracked as he struggled up the slope, bent low over the handlebars. He groaned exaggeratedly. But suddenly he stopped, dug his skinny legs into the grass and turned from the hip. “Hey, Uncle Gabi. What I wanted to ask you: do you know why bees hum?” And without waiting for an answer he cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered loudly: “Because they forgot the words!”
Oswald grinned, waved and sat down again on the chair. He lit the cigarette and glanced through the drifting smoke to the villa, where the woman was just locking the door and the man was stowing something in the boot of the jeep. When the interior light went on, he once again saw Vincent’s thatch of hair through the windscreen, his pale face.
The big car’s engine sounded quieter than the grating of the gravel under the wheels, the headlights grazed Oswald in his hospital uniform and then the driveway was suddenly empty.

Sterne Tief Unten, from Shakespeares Hühner by Ralf Rothmann, © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2013
Translation © Alexandra Roesch